It took me a moment longer to recover before Bob was able to help me to my feet. As my senses returned to normal, I dusted myself off and looked in the direction that Rick and Charles were busy debating about in hushed tones. Somewhere in the distance, barely visible through the trees and faint enough we’d have never seen it with the flashlights on, was a distant point with a reddish glow. I groaned and rubbed my head as we all looked at it.
“What do you think it is?” Rick asked, turning to me. Now that I had a moment to look them over, I realized how bloody and torn up we all were. Charles was holding his arm, and Bob went over to see if he was okay. Everyone was tense; it seemed like they remembered everything they had said and done. I took a deep breath and looked back toward the light.
“It’s new,” I said, “and that means it may just be worth checking out.” I turned and looked each man in the eyes in turn. “You guys with me on that?” Everyone agreed, Rick picked up the now blown-out flashlight, and we made for the red light.
We had walked for probably a half hour or so, at our best guess, when we came across a new line of jaggerbushes. By that point, I was sick of dealing with all of it, and not about to risk being redirected again. I found a branch with some weight to it, and dove into the bushes, smashing and stomping them down enough that we could scramble through to the other side. From then on, everything was a blur. I remember finding more bushes, and more, and swinging and stomping and climbing. I remember the red light never leaving my vision, always moving forward, refusing to shift even a little to one side or the other. I was lost in the movement, the destruction, the screaming as I took out every bit of rage and pain and loss on the thorns, the blood as they bit me back in the process. I remember trudging through what felt like a mountain of them, the sound of the branch breaking little by little, the way my friends’ voices grew more hushed and distant as I threw myself into the work of tearing every obstacle down, eventually dropping what little was left of the stick to grab and shove and tear and snap the bushes by hand. I don’t know how much time passed. I don’t know how mad I looked. I don’t know how I endured all the stabs and cuts. The next thing I remember with anything approaching clarity was storming through what little remained of a bush and falling down a short hill, crashing right into a fence.
I stood and looked around, taking a moment to get my bearings and refocus, as the others carefully made their way down the hill toward me. The moon was not directly overhead, and when I found it it was only half full. The woods loomed menacingly over us at the top of the small rise, but ahead was a ten-foot-tall chain link fence topped with barbed wire, with a shorter fence inside, and then a large field housing a barn. I don’t remember if we talked about what to do next, but I do remember climbing that fence. I felt the wire cut at me, but I pressed on, and by the time I had made my way past the inner fence I was starting to come down and stood catching my breath until the others caught up to me. We walked across the field, noticing that the tall and dangerous fence didn’t continue to the sides facing away from the forest. At this point, we didn’t feel the need to walk straight toward the light anymore, so we picked a part of the field away from the house to make our exit and scurry down to the road. We followed the sound of traffic back to 18, and when we got there made sure to glance over to find out what light had led us to safety.
It was the neon sign for Headliner’s, the strip club Mitch had wanted to go to instead of the Devil’s Church.
We made a note to tell him about it, then turned away to walk back to Alpha. It started to lightly rain, and we all started to walk a little lighter and a little more confidently as the water started rinsing some of the blood off of us. We noticed a road we had to cross on the way back, and recognized that it runs far enough up that we must have crossed it at some point in the woods, but decided not to dwell on it. By the time we got back to Alpha, we were all soaked, all of the wet blood washed away and most of the dried stuff starting to fade. We climbed into our seats and rested in silence for a minute, before lighting cigarettes and turning on the engine. The clock on the stereo kicked on, and we realized we had only been gone for forty minutes. I put the car in reverse, then sat for a moment with my foot on the brakes, then put it back into park.
“Look,” I said, “about tonight.”
“You were a madman out there at the end, man,” Rick said. “It was kind of impressive. I mean, I know we wanted out, but like. What got into you?” I sighed.
“My dad died last night.” I heard someone in the back take in a deep breath. “I…I couldn’t find his ghost, and then some spirits showed up and told me he had crossed over and that I needed to focus because big things were coming, and I was so mad and felt like I needed to step up and remembered this place and…I’m sorry, guys. I really am.” They took turns trying to convince me it was okay, and they understood, and then we pulled out and went to Denny’s. No one ever asks why you’re bleeding at Denny’s.
I stood still for a moment, trying to fight the intense desire to move forward. The voice was still trying to whisper in my ear, along with a discordant stream of other voices, but I was so absorbed in the moment that I could barely even make out what any of them said. I tried to push it aside, to silence the call of whatever waited in that field, but it was getting difficult until I noticed a figure move beside me. When I turned to look I saw Bob, his eyes wide and fixed somewhere in the distance, slowly moving to walk past me. I grabbed him and looked back, to see Rick and Charles in a daze but not moving. Was it not calling them? Was it calling Bob? He was still trying to get past me. I knew it wasn’t safe in there, that this was a mistake, that we weren’t ready to face whatever this was. I used both hands now to hold onto Bob, who now couldn’t move but was still trying.
“Guys, we need to go!” I cried out. No one answered. Rick furrowed his brow as if trying to understand, but Charles didn’t react at all. Bob was still trying to press forward.
“It’s too late,” the voice said, “they’re already mine.”
“Such weak things. But I’ll have fun with you, my little fighter.”
“No.” I pushed Bob back, sending him crashing into Rick and Charles, all landing in a heap on the ground. They slowly started trying to get up. I caught my breath and realized I was standing in the clearing, just at the very edge of it. When had I moved backward?
“We’re waiting for you, Jonathan Peter Matteson.” I gritted my teeth and clenched my fists, but found I was smiling despite myself. Did it really think I would fall for that?
“That’s not my name.”
“Don’t play games with me. As if we don’t know who you are.”
“That’s not my true name.” A pause. It didn’t know what to do with that. “Run!” I screamed as I stepped forward.
“They can’t hear you now, Jona-”
“Get back!” As I shouted the last word I felt the atmosphere change around me. The voices fell silent, the call to dive deeper into the Devil’s Church broke, the guys suddenly looked clear and alert and a swath of jaggerbushes behind them fell into heaps of thorns and wood. “We’re going!” I said before breaking into a sprint. The others scrambled to their feet and joined me, jumping over the pile and tearing into the woods.
We didn’t know which way we were going, and we didn’t care. As long as it was away, as long as it was somewhere outside of these woods. But whatever I did wasn’t permanent, and soon the draw back to the clearing was pulling at me again and jaggerbushes were starting to get in our way. The chorus of voices was back. We would try to dodge them, to get around, sometimes just barely skirting by while the thorns ripped at our arms or the edges of our clothes. I ran until my lungs burned, until my throat was dry, until my legs screamed for rest. And when I shoved through a wall of underbrush, I found myself staring at the clearing, directly opposite the two pines with the threatening moon. Charles collapsed behind me, gasping for air. Rick was bent over, his hands on his knees, trying to catch his breath. Bob, probably in the best shape of all of us, was leaning against a tree.
“No, it can’t be,” Bob said, looking past me to the clearing. “We were running away from it!”
“Not well enough, it seems,” I answered. I turned back and walked toward the others, recovering mere feet from a new line of thorns. We each took swigs from our drinks, Rick helped Charles up, and we walked toward the jaggerbushes.
“Can you open them up again?” Rick asked.
“I don’t know how I did it the first time.”
“Well, we can try this,” Bob said. We all turned toward him, Rick and Charles fixing their flashlights on a large stone Bob was resting his hand on. It was taller than the bushes, and they weren’t growing on it. No one agreed out loud, but we all made our way over and began scrambling up its rounded side until we could drop down on the other. With a line of jaggerbushes between us and the clearing, we pressed forward.
“You can’t run forever,” one voice taunted above the din of the others.
“Is there someone here?” Charles asked. “I mean, I don’t want to freak anyone else out, but I keep hearing voices, and Matteson is supposed to see spirits, and…” He trailed off, and I sighed.
“I’m hearing voices, too, but I don’t see anyone here. I don’t know how they’re doing it.” Rick and Bob confirmed they were also hearing things, and we huddled together to make a plan. It wasn’t much of a plan; basically we just agreed to keep moving away from the clearing until we found some way to get somewhere else. We pressed on.
It felt like another hour of walking before we found ourselves at the clearing again, in the exact same spot, staring at that moon between the twin pines. The stone was gone, but we found a slight passage between trees to escape. It was maybe fifteen minutes before we were at the clearing again. After that we stopped trying to track the time as we found ourselves at the clearing another six times. We were on our way away from it again when we stumbled on a patch of ground maybe ten feet across with just pine needles and mushrooms on it. We stopped there to take stock. We had all finished our drinks. We were tired, and sore, and bleeding through tears in our clothes from all the encounters with thorns. Everyone sat down, leaning back against one of the trees surrounding our little patch of peace, and the only sound for a few minutes was our heavy breathing and the endless stream of incomprehensible voices.
“Are we going to die here?” Bob asked. I shook my head. “Well how can you know?”
“We can’t believe that,” I told him. “We can’t let ourselves believe that.”
“I’m sick of this shit from you!” Charles yelled, throwing the flashlight at me. It missed and broke against the trunk of the tree above me. I tried to shield myself from the bits of broken plastic and glass, but still managed to have one of the batteries hit me square on the top of my head. He stood, pointing angrily at me. “What the fuck is this all about, huh? You never did tell us! Just suddenly up and decided we needed to go to the one place we all agreed wasn’t worth the effort?”
“Charles, look,” I said, standing. It was hard to see his expression in the dim light, but he seemed to be looking past me.
“What the fuck, man!” Rick exclaimed, jumping up. “We don’t have very many of those flashlights, you know!”
“Fuck you!” Charles yelled, turning on Rick and pushing him away. “Fuck you for dragging me out here, and fuck you,” he said, pointing to Bob, “for going along with this bullshit!”
“Don’t you snap at me, you coward!” Bob yelled as he stood. The ambient voices in the forest changed their tone, bickering and leering and laughing in their terrible cacophony.
“Don’t you touch me!” Rick swung at Charles, who barely dodged. Charles threw himself forward, tackling Rick into a jaggerbush and sending the lone remaining flashlight rolling along the ground. Bob followed, screaming accusations at Charles for having no spine and Rick for convincing both of them to come along. I went to step in, but they were all soon tearing at each other, rolling around in the thorns that bit deeply into them. I grabbed my head as the voices grew louder, demanding my attention, urging me to do something, to take charge, to end this madness by beating them all down.
“Or,” the whisper of that first voice cut through all the noise, “you could give yourself to me, and I’ll free them.” I fell to my knees as the noise grew louder, throbbing in my head, giving me a headache so bad that my vision was beginning to blur.
“None of us,” I muttered, punching the ground. “You get no one tonight.”
“I will have my tithe.” I pounded my fist into the ground again as I tried to push the voices away.
“You get nothing. Not tonight.” I heard one of the guys scream in pain, but distantly, as if through a tunnel.
“Three mortals, or one Anchor.” I pressed my forehead against the ground. My entire body was beginning to feel hot. I felt my hand hit the ground again, and then again.
“Nothing!” I screamed. I sat up and stared ahead, resting my fists against the ground. “You get nothing!” I could feel pressure build around me, as if something was trying to push back, but then the heat felt like it exploded off of me. What remained of the jaggerbushes collapsed. The guys grabbed their heads and screamed. The moon flickered and the trees shifted, ever so slightly, for just a moment. The voices all stopped. The bulb in the flashlight popped and went dark. I gasped for air and fell onto my side, my vision blurry and my ears ringing. I could see the vague shapes of the others, rolling up to sitting positions and then slowly, carefully, climbing to their feet and out of the pile of thorns. One of them limped over to me, and I felt a hand on my shoulder.
“Guys?” I heard Charles say as sound from outside began to filter back into my ears. “what’s that?”
By the time I pulled into the graveyard, it had been about 22 hours since I got the call from the hospital, and I had only had a half hour of sleep in that window. I spent my entire day focused on finding any trace I could of Dad, or researching what I could about King and Queen (which was not much), or trying to focus on controlling my ability more carefully. Before Jackie left for work she expressed concern about me, and offered to call out if I needed anything, but she wasn’t willing to do it to come to the Devil’s Church. It was very apparent that she felt this was a poor use of my time and that I should be home dealing with my emotions and probably sleeping. She would have gladly helped me with that; but not with this.
When I arrived at Rick’s to pick him up, Charles and Bob were with him. Charles was hesitant to actually go along to the Devil’s Church, but Bob and Rick had convinced him shortly before I arrived. I don’t know if they knew about my dad. Maybe Jackie had told Rick, or maybe one of them heard some other way, or maybe they had no idea. I know I didn’t tell them, but in retrospect it really seems like Charles would not have agreed if he didn’t at least suspect it was a favor of some sort. We made a point to bring flashlights this time, to help ease his concerns and because the half moon out that night wouldn’t give near enough light. He also brought along a cheap machete, but somewhere along the half hour drive he apparently forgot it. When we emerged from Alpha, we only had two flashlights, our cigarettes and lighters, and each of us had a drink in hand.
There was a path leading off of the graveyard and along the edge of the woods, which had clearly been made by cars but was not used often enough to avoid grass from growing in it. We decided to take that path and watch for an opening in the trees to enter instead of plunging straight in, and went probably forty feet or so down that way before finding a place that seemed easier to enter. It was dark, but the trees were farther apart here than in other places and the grass was short, and the ground looked pretty even. It seemed about the best place we would find to start, so we took it. We walked in, past the first half dozen trees or so, before Charles remembered that he’d left his machete and asked if we could go back for it. We agreed it was probably worth it to turn back while we were still so close to the entrance. We turned around to leave and found the path back completely blocked by thick jaggerbushes five or six feet tall.
“That…was the way we just came from, right?” Charles asked. We all confirmed it was. We slowly turned to look in every other direction to find more of those bushes, their thorns long and woody and threatening, on every side except the one that led deeper into the forest. We all agreed that the machete would, indeed, have been a good choice, but it was clearly too late for that now. We pressed on.
We soon found ourselves facing a thick section of the woods and, deeming it better than the bushes that seemed to keep popping up just outside our field of vision, we spent a good half hour stumbling over roots and dodging branches and squeezing between trunks. When we finally emerged into a somewhat more sparse region, we paused to light cigarettes and take drinks. It was then that Bob looked up and paused.
“Hey guys, you see that?” he asked, pointing. We turned and looked up and realized he was pointing at the full moon.
“Yeah,” Rick said, “it’s the moon.”
“It wasn’t full when we came in,” I said.
“That’s what I thought! And it shouldn’t be that high yet either, right?” Bob was getting excited. I had to remember that this was all new to him.
“What does that mean?” Charles asked.
“It means,” I said, shoving my drink back into my jacket pocket, “we should probably keep an eye on it.” I didn’t mention the call I was still sensing. I was trying to ignore it, but it had been growing stronger ever since we entered the woods and I knew whatever it was, we were getting closer. I knew I needed to face it, but I was growing less convinced that I was really ready to do that. Two large black birds took to flight over us and vanished into the trees. Charles jumped when they did, and Bob began talking softly to him. I didn’t hear what he said, but I recognized the look Charles has when someone is trying to calm him down and he’s considering whether or not to try it.
“What was that?” Rick asked, shining a flashlight in the direction they’d gone.
“Probably just ravens,” I said, finishing my cigarette and smashing the butt to death with my shoe. “This is more their territory than ours.” He hummed in agreement, and Charles and Bob walked the few feet back over to us.
“Where do we go from here?” Bob asked.
“Not the way we came,” Rick answered. “I ain’t doing that shit again if I can help it.”
“If the trees would even let us anyway,” Charles muttered, looking around with the other flashlight. I looked deeper into the woods, the direction I knew something wanted to pull me. Then I looked left of that and saw a line of jaggerbushes. I turned to look to the right, and saw a clearing. There was more dark forest, and it wasn’t exactly the way the forest wanted us to go. But it was open.
“That way,” I said.
“Why that way?” Rick asked.
“I feel better about it.” With that I started walking again, and the others followed. It’s not like anyone else had any better ideas.
We went along for maybe five minutes before we found jaggerbushes blocking our path. We turned back, but that was blocked, too. The only way ahead was to go deeper into the forest. Closer to the source. Something, or someone, was drawing us in. I suspected that wherever we were being led would have the church itself waiting.
“What’d you say?” Bob asked. We all stopped.
“What?” I asked.
“Someone, I don’t know which one of you, said something, but I must not have been paying attention because I missed most of it.”
“No one said anything,” Rick offered. “Are you sure you heard us say something?”
“Well…I mean, I assumed it was you, right? No one else is here.” Rick and Charles did a sweep with the flashlights but saw only trees and thorns.
“Seems that way.”
“Okay,” Bob said softly, and we continued a bit more slowly.
“Have you come to join us, John?” a female voice whispered in my ear. I spun around, expecting to see a spirit, but only the guys were there.
“You alright?” Rick asked.
“I think I know what Bob heard,” I answered.
“Oh, was it a bird or something?” Charles asked hopefully.
“No. It is definitely not a bird. Be careful, everyone.” Charles moved closer to Bob, and Rick suggested that we avoid silence to see if that would help. We all agreed, but I wasn’t much in the mood for it, so the three of them began telling stories and jokes as we progressed. I checked the sky again, and the moon was still full directly overhead.
“They don’t understand, do they?” the voice in my ear returned. I ignored it and kept walking. “It’s all a game to them. But this is so much bigger than they realize. Your fate lies ahead. Are you man enough to claim it?” I slipped between two large trees trying to avoid two more lines of jaggerbushes and stopped. Ahead of me was a few feet of tall grass, and then a large clearing. It was oddly shaped, clearly defined by the trees rather than people. On the opposite side of the clearing were two massive pine trees, jutting up above the canopy around them, and perfectly framing the full moon which had a moment ago been above us. It glared down on us like the eye of a cold god, and the sensation I couldn’t shake of something pulling me forward felt almost irresistible here. This was it. This was the heart of the site, the place where the earth swallowed the Devil’s Church, the core of whatever power was calling to me. According to the voice, my fate waited in that clearing.
I knew, somewhere deep down, that I wasn’t ready for it yet.
26 October 2006
Dad had been admitted into the hospital, and we were fairly sure he wasn’t going to come out alive. I tried to stay with him, but he insisted that I needed to get out sometimes, give him a little space and take some time to myself. I fought, at first, but once he made his wishes known to the nurses there wasn’t much of a choice left for me.
Rick decided that I needed something interesting to occupy my time, and managed to convince Charles and Jackie to join us on a little adventure. I told him I wasn’t up for it, but he already had everyone ready, and I had little strength to fight him on it, so I quickly found myself riding shotgun in my own car as Rick took us to his surprise.
Charles realized where we were going before I did, as my mind had started to wander somewhere along 18. I snapped out of it after he told Jackie and she demanded to know if he was right.
“What exactly is this Devil’s Church, anyway?” she asked after Rick sighed and confirmed that as our destination.
“It’s a local legend, is all,” he answered, waving it off as he took the left turn off the freeway.
“About an evil site that was consumed by the earth itself and now curses anyone who approaches!” Charles was getting frantic, and Jackie reached over to calm him.
“I don’t know if ‘curses’ is the right word,” I said, sitting up and looking around, “but the stories do not describe it as a particularly safe or friendly place.”
“This is your idea of getting Matteson’s mind off of things?!” Jackie demanded. Rick winced.
“Well, I mean, he did, you know, want to visit it, right?” Rick muddled through the question, and I sighed and leaned my head back against the seat.
“I did express some interest in seeing if there was anything really here, yes.” I turned to look at Jackie. “We tried to go, once. It didn’t work out.”
“Karen backed out,” Charles said. “Violently. I bet Rick’s balls still ache at the memory of it. It’s surprising he wanted to do this at all.” Rick pulled into the graveyard and parked, then turned and looked around at all of us.
“Look,” he said, “this is one of the greatest mysteries around here, and if anything is gonna shake things up, it’s gonna be the Devil’s Church. It feels…” he turned and looked out the windshield at the trees illuminated by Alpha’s headlights, “important.” Jackie sighed and rubbed the bridge of her nose.
“Fine,” she said, firmly. “Just don’t pull something like this again, okay?” He nodded and turned the engine off, tossing the keys into my lap before he climbed out into the night. By the time I emerged, Rick had turned on a flashlight and Charles was hanging close to him, probably to avoid getting too far from the light, and they had begun looking at headstones. I felt a hand on my arm, and turned to find Jackie trying to offer a comforting smile. “Do you want to talk about it?” I took a deep breath and looked back to the guys.
“Not here,” I said, softly. “Not now.” She nodded and pulled her jacket tight around herself.
“Do you feel it?”
“No.” I opened my mouth to answer, then closed it again and nodded. “What is it?”
“I don’t know. I sensed it last time, too. Karen picked up on it, somehow, and that’s why she refused to go any further.”
“Is Karen a witch or something?” I shrugged.
“She’s never mentioned it to me.”
“Interesting. Did anyone else sense it?”
“They didn’t seem to.”
“You guys coming?” Rick called, turning the flashlight on us. We each shielded our eyes.
“Not with that light in our faces!” I answered. Jackie chuckled as Rick lowered the light. I closed the door and we started to move forward. Rick was telling Charles a story, probably about the site, but I wasn’t really listening. The forest seemed to be calling me. I found myself drawn forward, just like I had last time. Something in there wanted me, personally, to go deeper. I was pretty sure I didn’t trust whatever that was, but I couldn’t shake the desire to at least find out what it wanted. Jackie wrapped her arm around mine, a move that at first seemed to be an attempt to offer emotional support; but soon, I could feel her begin to tense and hold tighter as we approached the woods. We were maybe five feet from the tree line when she stopped dead in her tracks. I stopped, and when I turned I saw her face was going pale.
“Rick,” she hissed. He stopped and looked to us again. He and Charles were right at the edge of the field. “I think we should go.”
“Oh, come on! Not you, too!” he whined, his shoulders dropping before he threw his arms out wide. “This is your thing!”
“My thing,” she said, sternly, “involves a lot of recognizing what is and is not okay to dabble in. And this,” she said, waving her free hand at the trees, “is not something to dabble in!”
“Why not? What’s going on?”
“There’s something in there,” I said. “Something powerful.”
“Okay, but we’ve faced a crazy cult summoning some kind of god! We’ve seen powerful things, man!”
“Not like this.”
“And more importantly,” Jackie said, “we had taken some precautions before, which we haven’t taken tonight because you didn’t tell us what we were dealing with.”
“Well, okay, but-” Rick began. Jackie interrupted him.
“AND, it bears noting, that Matteson is probably our best defense if we get into real trouble, and I suspect his power is at least a little bit tied to emotion, and he is not emotionally prepared for this right now!”
“Well-” I started.
“We’re right here!” Rick was getting frustrated. “I could literally turn around and put my hand into the woods, and now we’re backing off again? Because of some…thing you guys say you’re sensing?”
“It’s a pretty good reason!” Jackie answered.
“And what, you’re just assuming Matteson’s broke or something? Because of his dad? We already knew his dad was dying, Jackie, that’s why we’re fucking here!” Charles took in a sharp breath at that, and I shrugged Jackie off and walked back to Alpha. I sat down in the driver’s seat and lit a cigarette, ashing out the open door as I stared blankly at the instrument panel. I was about halfway through it when the other doors opened. Jackie slipped into the passenger seat, followed by Rick and Charles climbing into the back.
“Sorry,” Rick muttered. I nodded, closed my door, and started the engine.
“Denny’s?” I asked. I got a round of soft agreements, decided that was good enough, and we left.
20 December 2004
I groaned as I reached over to the ringing phone, only barely turning my head from my pillow to be able to see the screen. It was Rick. I let out a low growl as I answered.
"Were you asleep, John?"
"It's two in the afternoon!" I grumbled and rolled onto my back.
"I had a long night," I said, pushing myself up to sit with my back against the headboard. "Were you calling for any specific reason?"
"We're on for the Devil's Church! Tony is getting some people together, they're going to meet us at the D'Onofrio's parking lot in about an hour. You coming?" Mandy groaned and rolled over, laying her arm across my waist.
"Uh, let me check. I may have to do something real quick first."
"But you'll be there? Charles and I need a ride, he's here at my place."
"Yeah. I'll come get you." I hung up and leaned my head back against the wall for a moment, before putting the phone down and grabbing my smokes and a lighter.
"Who was that?" she asked, her voice soft and still half asleep.
"Your cousin." I lit my cigarette and breathed deep, blowing the smoke toward the ceiling. "We're gonna go investigate the Devil's Church."
"Oooo, that cursed place up past Headliner's?"
"The same." She began to trace her finger around my belly button as she scooted up to lean her head on my side.
"Can I come?"
"I think we've established you can." She lightly slapped my stomach and sat up, placing herself on my lap and facing me.
"Are you in a hurry?"
"We have an hour to get dressed, pick up Rick and Charles, and be up to D'Onofrio's." She hummed, running her hands down my sides and sliding herself down to slowly ease the blanket off me.
"I think we can make that work."
When Rick and Charles came out the door on hearing my horn, they were bickering about who would ride shotgun. I had my window down in case I'd need to yell to them, and was lighting another Newport. Mandy leaned over.
"Chicks get shotgun in Alpha, you know that!" she yelled out my window. Rick jogged down and leaned against my door to peer in as Charles grumbled and moved around to climb in the seat behind her.
"Mandy! John picked you up on the way?"
"No," I said. She laughed and winked, then sat back up in her seat. He looked puzzled for a moment, then concern washed over his face. "Get in or we're gonna be late." With that, I began rolling up my window and turned my attention forward. Rick stood upright, paused, then got in the back behind me. He tried to bum a smoke off Mandy but she reminded him we were going to a store and he could get his own, and he was quiet the rest of the trip.
D'Onofrio's is a standalone grocery store on the northern edge of the business district in Hermitage, and the last real stop before 18 becomes a freeway the whole way to Greenville, or at least the last one we acknowledge. For those of us who grew up in Sharon, it was an unstated fact that our home region ended at the store, and everything north was country. When we arrived, Tony's car wasn't there. Rick and I went in to get drinks and smokes while we waited.
"John," he finally said, softly, once we were out of earshot of the car and the store, "did you fuck my cousin?"
"Yes." He clenched his fists and took a deep breath.
"It was her idea. I didn't induce her to anything."
"Fine. But, please, did you at least-"
"I'm not answering any questions about how I had sex with your cousin." We were silent the whole time we were inside, and when we returned Tony's car was parked next to Alpha and Olivia was talking to Mandy through their open windows. As we got closer we saw that he also brought Karen, Mitch, and Rob. Mitch suggested we stop by Headliner's while we were up that way, citing his belief that strippers are always more friendly to a group that includes other women. He was soundly voted down. Rick and Olivia switched cars. After Tony and I confirmed we both knew where we were going, we set out.
We joked and carried on the whole way, and judging by the way they were laughing as they got out of the car I suspected the rest of them did roughly the same. Even Rick seemed to be in a better mood. Karen went straight for Olivia and Mandy and they began talking among themselves near Alpha as the rest of us gathered next to a headstone with letters faded beyond recognition in the dying winter light.
"What's the deal with this place, anyway?" Tony asked.
"Wait, they didn't tell you?" I asked, looking to the group.
"I thought he knew," Rick said with a shrug.
"I thought everyone knew," Rob said.
"Yeah, it's haunted, right?" Mitch offered.
"More than that." Rick was nearly jumping when he cut back in. "It's called the Devil's Church because there's a real church in there, somewhere in the haunted woods! They went dark, started worshiping the Devil, hosting orgies, human sacrifices, the whole thing. They got so corrupt that the Earth opened up and swallowed them whole; and now, the souls of the people who died wander the woods, tempting and tormenting people that enter!"
"And...why are we entering?" Tony asked, his brow furrowing.
"Because! We're gonna find the church!"
"No one has ever found the church itself," Rob said. "Everyone who tries falls to the spirits, and those who die there join the ghostly army."
"They're gonna try to kill us?!" Charles blurted out.
"Only if we don't join them willingly."
"That's not better!"
"They get people to do all kinds of things," Mandy said as the girls approached us. "They say groups who go in there can be best friends, but somewhere in the woods they start killing each other, or going mad. Sometimes eating each other!"
"Some stories include rape," Rob offered. I raised my brow.
"There...some very compelling reason you guys wanted to come along?" I asked the girls.
"Oh come on, you don't really believe the stories, do you?" Olivia asked.
"Besides," Mandy said, walking over to me. "If we were gonna start believing the stories, we should also believe you can just," she started fake punching the air in front of me, "break the curse and keep us safe, right?" The others laughed.
"John's our ringer, guys," Rick said. "We're gonna be the first ones to find that church cause nothing gets by him." I sighed and pointed my cigarette toward the trees.
"Fine. Lead the way."
"I will!" With that, Rick started walking toward the woods, and we all fell into groups following him. As we got closer and closer to the trees, Karen was growing visibly more hesitant. Finally, when Rick was just past the tree line, she stopped dead in her tracks and started to shake. We all stopped and turned to face her, as Rob and Olivia tried to calm her down. She started to protest going any further, and when Rob put his hands on her shoulders and told her it'd be okay she kicked him square in the balls. He stumbled backwards and she fell to her knees, crying. Olivia and Mandy swooped down to her. I looked around.
"You know, guys," I said, "it uh, it looks like no one brought a flashlight and it's getting dark. Maybe another time?"
"Yeah," Tony said, weakly, "Another time."
"Headliner's?" Mitch offered.
"How about Denny's." We all agreed to Tony's suggestion, and started heading back to the cars.
The blog of John Matteson.